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What’s wrong with lesbian parenting studies

January 17th, 2012

By Michael Worley, First year law student at J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, and a 2011 graduate of the Ruth Institute It Takes a Family to Raise a Village program.

It is common knowledge that TV reports don’t tell the whole story.  Frequently a group of 75 undecided voters gather to share their responses immediately after a debate.  Such people provide instant commentary that the theorists of network TV may not be able to perceive.  However, these groups tend not to be predictive of overall election results. Random polling via phone calls shows us much clearer results. 

Likewise, the media frequently fails to report the whole picture by reporting on insufficient studies on gay or lesbian parenting. The latest reporting of the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study pertaining to lesbian mothers (http://www.nllfs.org/images/uploads/pdf/nllfs-quality-life-january-2012.pdf) continues this trend.

Let’s consider issues that demonstrate bias with such studies in the context of the latest report—saying that 17 year-old children of lesbian mothers are just as happy as a Washington study of 75 similar children. This post won’t address the questions used– even considering how the lesbian couples were found raises red flags.

In the lesbian study, there were several requirements for the couples or single people to be considered:

a. They had to respond to advertisements.  This means they wanted to be a public example of a lesbian couple.  This would imply they will be more invested in a child’s happiness.

b. They had to conceive via insemination (eliminating the vast majority of lesbian couples which have children from previous relationships).  This implies that they had the money to afford insemination, and money is a factor in happiness.

c. They had to be women.  There are practically no studies of parenting by gay men in existence.

d. They could only be one of the 78 couples who were used.

When you are gathering data, you want a large sample to ensure you get accurate answers. Most  Presidential polls will ask between 500-1,500 randomly selected voters—and still not be perfect.  The authors instead feel like 78 children (the same 78 they’ve used before) is enough to conclude things about a much wider group of children.  While case studies with small sample sizes can be useful, case studies are best done when there is a pre-established set of research, not as the banner study in the field.

Some observant people who looked up the website and the study will have noted that the authors used a comparison sample.  While this attempts to correct the money problem (by normalizing education) it fails to correct the other problems—the self-selection was not present in Washington, nor was the sample size magically larger, nor was there a motivated group to do exceptionally well.  This raises some red flags.

In addition there were many details that the paper didn’t factor into its conclusions.  For instance, page 5 of the paper notes that 55% of the couples had separated.  Half of the couples, therefore, were functionally single moms or re-”married” moms by the time a child turned 17.  One would expect two mothers to be better than one, especially within research that shows the struggles of single mothers.

And yet, the study doesn’t believe lesbian divorce matters: “adolescents whose mothers were still together and those whose mothers had separated did not differ on reported [Quality of Life].”   While this is likely due to the small sample size and self-selection bias, one would think the authors would have the common sense not to report anything that would hint that when couples separate, it doesn’t affect child outcomes.

After all of these problems, the study concludes: “This finding supports earlier evidence that adolescents reared by lesbian mothers from birth do not manifest more adjustment difficulties … than those reared by heterosexual parents.” For those who care how the media reports a similar study, see the 2010 study : http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1994480,00.html. The concerns raised here are hardly mentioned.

A postscript:  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe children of lesbian parents do just as well as normal parents.  Maybe this holds independent of whether a child was conceived by insemination.  Maybe this holds irrespective of whether the moms stay together.  But neither this nor any other NLLFS study based on the same adolescents, whose parents self-selected them, credibly supports any such conclusion.

 

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